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Military industrial complex exploits prison labor

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U.S. Bureau of Prisons and companies claim practice 'helps' prisoners

By Steve Johnson
June 03, 2011

 Female inmates answering phones in a prison system call center
News reports indicate that some materials used by the U.S. military during its May bombing campaign against Libya were made with the labor of prisoners in the United States. The parts were made in federal prison workshops run by the U.S. Bureau of Prison’s UNICOR division.

According to the government’s own website about UNICOR and Federal Prison Industries: “ Its mission is to employ and provide job skills training to the greatest practicable number of inmates confined within the Federal Bureau of Prisons; contribute to the safety and security of our Nation’s Federal correctional facilities by keeping inmates constructively occupied; produce market-priced quality goods and services for sale to the Federal Government; operate in a self-sustaining manner; and minimize FPI’s impact on private business and labor.”


A May 20 AlterNet article by Mike Elk points out the reality: “Traditionally, these types of defense jobs would have gone to highly paid, unionized workers. However, the prison workers building parts for these missiles earn a starting wage of 23 cents an hour and can only make a maximum of $1.15 an hour. Nearly 1 in 100 adults are in jail in the United States and are exempt from our minimum wage laws, creating a sizable captive workforce that could undercut outside wage standards.”

The December 2010 strike of Georgia prisoners in at least six prisons was sparked in part by labor issues of prisoners working as virtual slaves in prison industries.

A number of rationalizations are used to justify corporate use of prison labor. UNICOR claims that the use of such labor keeps “inmates constructively occupied.” Michael P. Jacobson, author of “Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration”(New York University Press, 2005) and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, advocates prison labor exploitation because “you’re providing a skill for when they leave.” (AlterNet)

Various cities and states have jumped on the prison labor bandwagon, according to The New York Times, which cites California, Florida and Georgia as states that exploit prison labor and use budget deficits to justify the practice.

In reality, pushing more and more state and federal prisoners into the “labor force” is creating an internal layer of super-exploited laborers, akin to undocumented workers who labor within the United States under slave-like conditions. The two categories of workers differ mainly in their legal status.

For bosses, exploiting undocumented workers can result in fines and the risk of their workers being deported. Hiring prison labor eliminates these problems. Virtual slavery is legal under the U.S. Constitution as long as the person enslaved is a prisoner. Since it is legal, more capitalists will be enticed to use UNICOR as a way to lower production costs and defeat trade unions while claiming to be helping prisoners.

The labor movement, the prisoner rights movement and prisoners themselves must unite to challenge this effort to super-exploit prisoners, weaken unions and drive down workers' wages.

Read 16904 times Last modified on Wednesday, 21 December 2011 20:38
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